Having once spent 5 weeks in France teaching in a study abroad program, the Ramblers had often thought of a return trip. However, the years have flown by and we never did go back. Now, after river cruising on the Rhine and Danube, we considered a cruise on French rivers, the Seine and the Rhone.
Since we had great times on our Uniworld cruises, we decided to book a trip they called Grand France. This was a double cruise on two different boats. The River Baroness would sail from Paris to Normandy and back. Then we would transfer to the SS Catherine, based in Lyon, for a cruise through Provence which ended in Avignon.The two cruises were linked for the Grand France tour by a TGV ride from Paris to Lyon. Although we have often ridden on trains in Europe, we had never been on the TGV and this sounded interesting as well.
Although I would book the Grand France cruise through AAA as before, this time I decided not to get our air fare through Uniworld, but instead book it myself. The main reason was that the Ramblers wanted some control over the times and dates of our flights. Cruise companies often put their customers on flights with arrivals that suit them rather than the passengers, especially for departures. All cruise companies need to get passengers off their boats quickly on the last morning of the cruise so that the cabins can be cleaned and readied for the next group of cruisers. Often it leads, as it did for us, to being driven to the airport at 3:30 AM for an early flight out. This had not been very pleasant, so I decided to see what I could do myself.
The internet has made booking air fare both easy and confusing. Once you investigate flights, you are bombarded with teaser ads or email promoting really cheap prices. Of course, the airlines all have their own websites as well, and most of these are fairly easy to navigate. Michelle Shirley, my AAA agent told me that generally the airlines have taken most of the insider perks away from travel agents and anyone looking to fly can book just as good a deal as they could get from a travel agency. Plus the airlines offer just as good prices although they may not last long, as the websites promoting cheap air deals.
Armed with this information I began my search for flights from Atlanta to Paris, round-trip. Before I go any further, it is really important to know exactly when your river cruise is going to depart on the first day of the cruise. Really important… Most cruises stay overnight that first day or sail later in the evening, but not all, as the Rambler found to her dismay. Right after booking a flight that got to Paris at 2 in the afternoon, I realized that our ship would leave at 5:30 that same afternoon! I had thought, without checking, that the River Baroness would sail later in the evening, so always check this first. Arriving at 2 in the afternoon was definitely not a good thing as Paris-Charles de Gaulle is a big airport and there would be little time to make our cruise. AAARGH This meant that I had to change our booking, a $300 per person charge which negated the pretty good deal I had found. So please do check. It might not even be a bad idea to arrive the day before, which would have saved us $600 minus the cost of our airport hotel.
Well, back to my booking experience. For those of you who don’t live in New York or Boston, there are often not many choices for a non-stop flight to Europe, depending on the city. One would think that Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport, one of the busiest in the world, would have many choices for getting to Paris non-stop, but this was not the case. Atlanta is a Delta hub and for some strange reason, all the non-stop flights to Paris were either on Delta or one of its partners, Air France. If we had wanted to go to Amsterdam, we could have chosen KLM, another Delta partner, which would have been our first choice. Air France was not recommended by our travel agent, and the Ramblers followed her advice, and booked Delta, tho it surprised us. Unfortunately, we would later learn just how Air France got its bad reputation.
Since we were booking our own air fare, I had the bright idea of staying a few extra days in Avignon at the end of our cruise, to see more of Provence. Then we could travel back to Paris by TGV and catch our flight home the next day. Having talked the senior Rambler into this new plan, I booked the air, adding extra comfort seats, and began the search for a place to stay in Avignon. This would be moving out of our comfort zone, as we would no longer have Uniworld to move us around.
Again, the internet makes this both easy and difficult. There are so many choices and so many reviews on Trip Adviser and similar sites that don’t necessarily tell you what you want to know. Fortunately, a friend who had stayed in Avignon before, stressed the importance of staying inside the walls in the historic center of the city. This was really good advice, although I didn’t realize it until we got there. This decision narrowed our choices somewhat, but I had now to chose between a chain hotel and a small inn or B&B. Both had pluses and minuses. If you stay at a chain hotel and there is a problem, you can usually get it solved in your favor. However, if you stay at a B&B, once you pay, it’s hard to change things. Having read reviews for days, I finally decided on Le Limas, a B&B with a view of the Papal Palace from its 4th floor terrace. Le Limas turned out to be an excellent choice, but the Ramblers wouldn’t be sure of this until we arrived.
Next, was the task of signing up for several day-long tours of the Provence countryside that we wouldn’t be able to see from the boat. Again, after much reading of reviews, I decided to go with two tours advertised by Viator, a company my world traveling daughter recommended. The first was a day long highlights of Provence tour that would take us all over the Provence countryside, featuring both medieval and Roman highlights. The second was a day long tour of the wine regions of Provence which included tastings and lunch. The senior Rambler doesn’t drink, so this tour was definitely more for me, but as it turned out, he would enjoy it very much.
That done, all we had to do was think about what we might pack, and how to make sure our plants got watered until the terrorist attacks in France , which occurred, as it turned out, in places we were to visit. Soon people began to ask if we were still going, or “weren’t we afraid to travel to France?” Honestly, the Ramblers didn’t think about cancelling our trip. We both believe that when your number is up, it’s up, and still looked forward to the trip. After we arrived in France, we did notice, particularly in Paris and Avignon, a very visible police and military presence, but no violence.
Many people obviously were afraid, because both of our cruises were half full, even though they had been completely booked months ago. Giving in to fear, in our opinion, is playing into the hands of the terrorists. We were thanked many times during our trip by the French men and women we met for having the courage to travel to France at this time.
Before we left, we also applied and were approved for Global Entry cards, although we are not sure if they were worth the $100. fee. It certainly makes entering the US easy enough, but seems to do little when you are going through security before you board. Be aware that if you have some metal in your body, as I do with two artificial hips, you will be x-rayed and patted down. Very humiliating for the Rambler, especially since the senior Rambler walked right through. This time they even made me take my shoes off and x-rayed them.
So much for the Global Entry card at this point. However, we did board our flight, it was uneventful and smooth, and we landed in Paris on time, at 6:10 AM. A Uniworld representative would be waiting for us outside the door after we collected our baggage. Well, my bag was one of the first ones on the conveyor belt, but after 45 minutes, my husband’s still hadn’t shown up. Air France had somehow lost it. We filled out several lost baggage forms, one person said it had been put on a later plane and we could get it later. We did get it later….8 days later.
Somewhat flustered, after filling out the lost baggage forms, the Ramblers headed out the exit and were relieved to find a Uniworld Representative still waiting for us after the luggage hassle. We climbed aboard the van and relaxed, Surely we would get the lost bag later in the day. On our way to the River Baroness, we noticed many cranes, high in the air, Paris was expanding its high-rise buildings. Our boat was moored withing sight of the Eiffel Tower and next to a park where a tethered hot-air balloon took crowds of people up to enjoy the view. We were not tempted to try it after our long flight, and spent the rest of the day relaxing until we left on the first leg of our cruise at 5:30 PM